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India's Traditions Hold On With The Chapati Man

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Tarachand Singh makes a living selling food on the side of the road. Credit Gayan Kohli for NPR. i

Fifteen rupees, or about 30 cents, buys two chapatis and one vegetable from Tarachand Singh's dhaba. Gyan Singh for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Gyan Singh for NPR
Tarachand Singh makes a living selling food on the side of the road. Credit Gayan Kohli for NPR.

Fifteen rupees, or about 30 cents, buys two chapatis and one vegetable from Tarachand Singh's dhaba.

Gyan Singh for NPR
Chapatis are cooked by sticking them to the side of a tandoor. Credit Gayan Kohli for NPR. i

Chapatis are stuck to the side of a tandoor oven — a clay cylinder buried in the ground — to cook. Gyan Singh for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Gyan Singh for NPR
Chapatis are cooked by sticking them to the side of a tandoor. Credit Gayan Kohli for NPR.

Chapatis are stuck to the side of a tandoor oven — a clay cylinder buried in the ground — to cook.

Gyan Singh for NPR
Singh's menu might include creamy lentils or beans in spicy sauce. Credit Gayan Kohli for NPR. i

Singh's menu might include creamy lentils, beans in spicy sauce, or potatoes and cauliflower. Gyan Singh for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Gyan Singh for NPR
Singh's menu might include creamy lentils or beans in spicy sauce. Credit Gayan Kohli for NPR.

Singh's menu might include creamy lentils, beans in spicy sauce, or potatoes and cauliflower.

Gyan Singh for NPR

India is changing so fast that traditional culture seems to be disappearing in the time it takes to hit "delete." Farm families travel on bullock carts while chatting on cell phones. Sikhs attend weddings in traditional turbans and saris — then dance after the ceremony to pounding techno beats. More and more Indians are swapping traditional teatime for drinks at a chain of cafes modeled on Starbucks.

But on most evenings, a scene from the old days remains on a busy street corner in Punjab's capital city, Chandigarh. Underneath the din of passing motorbikes and trucks, a rhythmic, gentle "slap-slap-slap-slap-slap" carries on a tradition.

It's the neighborhood chapati man.

Sitting in a lotus pose, the grizzled, gaunt man looks almost in a trance. He takes a ball of dough, slaps it into a disc and bakes it for one minute in the tandoor oven. He spears it with a metal tong to pull it out — all blistered and cracked and smoky. Then he takes a new ball of dough and does it again. And again.

Indians call Tarachand Singh's kind of business a dhaba — a place along the road that sells food. There isn't any structure here, not even a rickety wooden stall.

Singh and his 19-year-old son, Parveen, simply show up every morning after sunrise. They squat on a patch of dirt under a tree with giant branches that act as an awning. They light a charcoal fire in their tandoor oven — a clay cylinder buried in the ground — and then they make one chapati after another until close to midnight.

Good Food, Cheap

Chapatis, or tandoori rotis, as some might call the kind Singh makes, are probably the staple food in India. And they're one of the oldest foods in the world; people have been making flatbreads like them for thousands of years.

Singh serves the chapatis on metal plates with hot vegetables scooped from battered tin pots sitting over glowing coals. There might be creamy lentils (dal) and beans in spicy sauce (rajma), or potatoes and cauliflower (aloo gobi ki subzi).

You get two chapatis and one vegetable for 15 rupees, the equivalent of just over 30 cents. Or you can splurge and get two vegetables and five chapatis for another dime.

"It's good food, and it's cheap," says Mahummad Arif, who pedals a rickshaw. Like dozens of other rickshaw pullers, truckers and other customers at Singh's dhaba, Arif is eating his dinner while sitting cross-legged on the dirt.

"Here, everything is in the open," he says. "So you can see while they're cooking, how they are cooking it. The vegetables here are very fresh. It's not like the other dhabas." Arif and other rickshaw drivers say many food stalls in town scrape the dirty leftovers from earlier customers' plates and recycle them to unsuspecting diners later.

The Chapati Man's Story

Singh grew up on a farm that has been in his family for generations. "I used to grow maize, barley, wheat," Singh says. "And it was real hard work."

The story of how he became a chapati man reflects the huge changes transforming India.

Every time a farm family in India has sons, the parents have to carve up their land, so every son gets his own piece. With every new generation, each son's share of the farm gets smaller and smaller. Singh's farm was tiny, and he struggled to support his family.

So 20 years ago, he walked away from his farm and moved to the city — just as tens of millions of other rural Indians have done. Singh is luckier than many, because at least he found a job. He saw this patch of dirt and became a chapati man.

But Singh's son says they're not sure if their business can last. City officials "trouble us a lot," Parveen says. "We're not sure when they'll order us to leave." He's reluctant to give more details, but Nabdeep Arora, an acquaintance who sells milk and eggs at a nearby stall, says the dilemma is that Singh is doing business on somebody else's property.

In other words, Singh is a squatter. Both Arora and Parveen confirm that Singh has been doing business on this patch of dirt, under the spreading branches of the tree, without paying rent to anybody or getting any permits.

And as India's population keeps booming, corners like this are getting as valuable as gold. Developers are hungry for every square inch, to build housing developments or shopping malls.

Arora says Singh has been bribing city officials to turn the other way while he keeps churning out chapatis. "He's paying under the table — the health department and the environment people," Arora says. "Some policemen also come here to eat, but they don't pay for the food. Free service for the policemen."

At that point, Singh barks out, ending the interview.

"Don't let Singh bother you," one of the rickshaw drivers says. "He can act like a jerk.

"But," the driver adds, "he makes really good chapatis."

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